L.A. mayor's Spanish woos Mexican media
MEXICO CITY — Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, recently made an official visit to the Mexican capital, making him the second Spanish-speaking LA mayor in a row to do so.
Garcetti, like the past mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, speaks a version of the language that might be called Funky American Business Spanish for lack of a more scientific term.
Villaraigosa and Garcetti have Latino roots, but both had to learn much of their Spanish in school or on the job. They speak a serviceable but far from perfect Spanish, a shortcoming each has acknowledged with good humor. During a 2009 visit to Mexico City, Villaraigosa referred to himself jokingly as “el pochito”. “Pocho” is slang for an Americanized Mexican who may not speak Spanish well.
On Tuesday, Garcetti referred to his language skills as “good community meeting Spanish.” He said much of it was refined while he was representing LA’s heavily Spanish-speaking 13th City Council District. Garcetti's grandfather on his father's side was born in Mexico.
It so happened that the Mexican media was just as eager as his hometown voters to chat him up. They were fascinated by the new LA mayor with Mexican roots and an Italian name.
“Yesterday I think I did 15 individual interviews” in Spanish, Garcetti said in an interview Tuesday morning. “At the end of the day, your head kind of hurts. But the next day, you’re speaking it again, and it hurts a little less.”
Garcetti’s Spanish probably served him well Tuesday afternoon in a closed-door meeting with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. Pena Nieto was criticized by some during his 2012 campaign for speaking limited English.
At a news conference Monday at the Industrial Club of Mexico, the mayor was able to answer questions in Spanish. He held forth on the two cities’ shared challenges and his mixed Jewish-Latino background. His answers were also peppered with the kinds of little mistakes that his 11th-grade Spanish teacher would have marked, lightly, in red pen.
At one point, he appeared to have invented a word: “agrecimiento,” to mean “acuerdo,” or “agreement.” Moments later, he stuck the English word “between” in the middle of a Spanish sentence. Later, making a reference to the “social fabric,” Garcetti said what sounded like the “fabrica social” (in Spanish, “el tejido social”), which could be translated as “the social manufacturing plant.”
Appreciating The Effort
If Garcetti had been speaking French on a diplomatic mission to Paris, he might have been yelled at for his errors, some say jokingly. But Mexicans tend not to be such purists. They have also built up years of tolerance for visitors from El Norte mangling their mother tongue.
“There’s no gotcha involved here,” Gil Cedillo, an LA City Councilman who is traveling with the mayor on the four-day trip, said in an interview Tuesday.
Cedillo should know: Although he grew up in Boyle Heights with Spanish-speaking parents, he said he started speaking the language seriously only after 1998, when he was elected to the California State Assembly and promised local Spanish-speaking media that he’d improve. Soon after, he said, he went to Cuernavaca for a two-week Spanish immersion crash course.
His parents, like many Latino parents at the time, saw the widespread prejudice against Spanish speakers. They decided it best that their son join the English speakers.
“I know I’m limited,” he said. “I know my grammar is not correct. But I know people here appreciate the effort.”
Garcetti used Spanish often during last year’s mayoral race. He emphasized his Mexican background even as some well-known local Latino leaders rallied behind his opponent. At least one of them questioned Garcetti’s Latino roots. The tactic probably helped him carry most of the heavily Latino neighborhoods on LA’s Eastside in the May election.
"OK, I'll Say It In English"
Building favor with Mexico on the business front also makes good sense. According to Garcetti’s office, Mexico is the LA metropolitan area’s second-largest export market. Trade between Los Angeles and the Mexican capital alone was $2.2 billion in 2010. And the largest number of foreign tourists to LA are from Mexico.
The mayor arrived in Mexico City on Sunday, where he was joined by a group of LA city officials. A number of area business leaders came along and paid their own way.
On Monday, Garcetti visited the National University of Mexico. He praised its plans to partner with Cal State Northridge in creating a new Center for Mexico and Latin American Studies at the California school. On Wednesday, he was scheduled to open a new exchange program between Loyola Marymount University and the Technological Institute of Mexico.
Garcetti spoke at a news conference about the importance of “cultural fluency” in the new global economy. “Mas y mas, este es una oportunidad de cruzar las fronteras,” he said. More and more, this is an opportunity to cross borders. “Directamente, y, um, ah...”
“Say it in English,” Isaac Ajzen, a reporter for diariojudio.com, suggested in English, with a chuckle.
“OK, I’ll say it in English,” Garcetti said. “You can cross the borders literally and conceptually.”